Civil society in a divided society

Avila Kilmurray

Any concept that is currently being used across 34,000 websites[1] is in serious danger of being interpreted in a wide range of potentially conflicting ways. Civil society is clearly one such term. The temptation to present it as a metaphor for all things bright, beautiful and inherently progressive misses the important point that civil society, like politics, is an arena of struggle.

Many years of working in Northern Ireland, in a situation of division and conflict, makes one sensitive to the need to win progressive positions rather than merely assuming that they exist.

Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of CIVICUS, recently asserted the importance of work around the issue of values within civil society.[2] This was a particularly relevant call given the lack of agreement about what is meant by ‘working for the common good’. If values such as social inclusion, human rights and equality are to inform civil society, they must be actively argued for.

Keeping the lines of communication open

However we define civil society, it is about active citizenship. Politics is sometimes seen as being solely about control of management of the state by elected politicians. One of the benefits of civil society networks and organizations is that they can counterbalance centralizing power tendencies, but this requires the active participation of citizens. The exercise of such citizenship in turn enables individuals and groups to contribute to the development of society and societal relationships.

The role of civil society in extending active citizenship becomes even more focused in very divided societies. Northern Ireland is a case in point. At a recent conference for Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoners,[3] Sir George Quigley, then Chairman of the Ulster Bank, suggested that in order to make progress ‘Old problems need new questions asked of them’. Over the 30 or so years of the conflict in Northern Ireland, this has been an important role for at least some – but by no means all – of the organizations within civil society. The trade union movement, employers’ organizations, a few academics and church representatives and, most critically, groups and individuals in the community and NGO sector, have asked questions, brought forward new ideas, been to the fore in keeping lines of communication open.

Throughout the years of violence this was the most important role undertaken by those organizations and individuals that were prepared to take the risk. Diverse initiatives were taken to talk to combatants and political stakeholders, thereby effectively challenging the demonization of ‘the other side’. In a period of fear, when the common wisdom was that ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, community groups and NGOs created small niches within society where people felt safe to exchange views and to share their anger, hopes and aspirations. The other critical role undertaken by some CSOs was to speak out against periodic atrocities and abuses of human rights.

Suggesting options for a new order

In both the lead up to the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994 and the post-ceasefire years of peace negotiations (1994-98), the role of civil society developed into more proactively examining and suggesting options for a new order within society. An initiative from within civil society (the Opshal Commission) examined options for political progress in the early 1990s. Ideas like the establishment of a Civic Forum and new structures to promote greater cooperation between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland were promoted and later incorporated into the Good Friday Agreement.[4] It was NGOs and civil society activists who joined with certain politicians to argue forcibly for the importance of a human rights and equality agenda within the Agreement. The other crucial contribution of many CSOs was to give expression to the public demand for political compromise.

After the Good Friday Agreement

The experience of Northern Ireland highlights the complexity of civil society. The severity of the conflict and divisions brought together strong broad-front alliances among some otherwise possibly diverse elements within civil society. The motivating factor was the need to identify the parameters and processes that might result in a peaceful and inclusive society. After the adrenaline of the conflict period and the excitement of negotiations have passed, however, the very different perspectives within civil society can, and do, re-emerge. While some organizations within civil society can advocate compromise, others such as the Orange Order and the community-based Concerned Residents’ Groups reflect the zero-sum game of the ‘you win, therefore I lose’ syndrome that has characterized the political implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Civil society cannot escape the requirement to engage in dialogue and debate and to work towards identifying core values. Summertime Northern Ireland style underlines the point.[5] It is dangerous to assume that we are all in agreement about the values that underpin civil society it. If we want to ensure that the principles of social justice inform both civil society and the development of active citizenship in practice, we have little alternative but to invest the time, energy and imagination that it will take to achieve this worthwhile goal.

Avila Kilmurray is Director, Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust – Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. She can be contacted by email at

1 Cited in Barry Knight and Caroline Hartnell, ‘Civil society: is it anything more than a metaphor for hope for a better world?’ Alliance, Vol 5, No 3, Sept 2000.
2 During the International Society of Third Sector Research conference in Dublin in July 2000.
3 Organized by the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust – the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.
4 The Good Friday Agreement (otherwise known as the Belfast Agreement) was the product of Multi-Party Talks chaired by Senator George Mitchell, 1996-98.  The Agreement was ratified by over 70 per cent of  those voting in the Northern Ireland Referendum in May 1998. Relevant aspects of the Agreement were also accepted through a Referendum held in the Republic of Ireland on the same day.
5 The July/August period in Northern Ireland is often characterized by communal disturbance and inter-community violence. The traditional Orange Order marches take place throughout these months.

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